This post is intended as supplemental material for the course “Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States”
These excerpts are from the section “Novelty Update” in Ellis (2008). This is from the chapter focusing on the 1980s, but covers artists from various time periods.
Novelty songs have been a fixture in music since before the birth of rock. During their fifties heyday, they functioned in tandem with children’s cartoons and comic books, as silly ditties like Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” (1958) captured the hearts and imaginations of preadolescents. Soon after, folk singers like Tom Lehrer and Roger Miller and country artists like Ray Stevens and Homer & Jethro made novelty songs staples of their respective genres, appealing to kids of all ages. Sometimes their good-natured buffoonery had a sly subversive edge to it, but for the most part, their songs were innocent responses to current events and fads. Thought the novelty craze continued into the sixties and seventies, sustained by a parade of one-hit-wonder bubblegum bands, it became a dominant force again in the eighties pop charts courtesy of the most unlikely new source: rap music. (Ellis 2008, 201-2)
Artists mentioned in this section:
Songs like “Pickin’ Boogers” (1988) suggested the juvenile quality of Biz Markie’s lyrical wit, but it was his outrageously out-of-tune, off-key voice that endeared him to the masses. “Just a Friend” (1989) may be the worst-sung hit in the history of rock, and its incongruity humor is only furthered by the video where “the clown prince of hip-hop” assumes the role of Mozart, complete with powdered wig, thus hilariously conflating high art with vocal artlessness. (ibid, 202-3)
DJ Jazz Jeff & the Fresh Prince introduced Will Smith to popular cultural long before he lived in Bel-Air or defended the earth against aliens. However, his opportunism was clearly well honed as early as the mid-eighties, as he and his partner crafted a series of bubblegum hits for the kids. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (1988) was an update of the Coaster’s “Yakity Yak” (1958), playing coyly to young people’s burgeoning rebellious instincts. (ibid, 203)
Perhaps the most controversial of the novelty rappers was Sir-Mix-a-Lot. His 1992 “Baby Got Back” hit sparked debate across the land about the offensiveness of the lyrical (and video) content. Was it sexist objectification in the 2 Live Crew vein, as some feminists claimed? Or was it celebrating the black woman’s derriere, as many defenders claimed? Or was it an implicit critique of the media’s privileging of “white,” tight behinds, as others alleged? (ibid, 204)
Tone Loc, too, stamped his identity on his songs through his unmistakable voice; its deep, gravelly, quality alluded to like-sounding sex-crooners such as Barry White and Issac Hayes, but bore the “tone” of parody in its exaggerated raunchiness. Tone Loc ruled pop rap in 1989 with his two slightly saucy novelty hits, “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina.” (ibid, 203)